As temperatures soared to nearly 40 oC in most areas of Egypt, reaching more than 45 oC in the south, ongoing power cuts have made life increasingly difficult for anyone seeking relief indoors. Fans and air conditioning units shudder to a halt. Washing machines and other domestic appliances are inoperable and the water supply is cut to those living on the upper storeys of buildings.
Late last week, as electricity consumption reached a record level of 34,650 megawatts (MW) during peak hours, according to the Ministry of Electricity and Renewable Energy, the government announced it had started to implement temporary load reductions to reduce the pressure on the natural gas network which feeds power plants. Yet officials also said that available electrical capacity was 44,900 MW, with Ministry of Electricity Spokesperson Ayman Hamza insisting that capacity existed to generate 48,000 MW.
Over the last six years Egypt has built several mega power plants that together increased electricity production by over 30,000 MW. They include the Burullus power plant, the Beni Sweif power plant and the New Administrative Capital power plant, the latter costing 2 billion euros. The government also announced on several occasions that not only had Egypt achieved self-sufficiency, it now enjoys an electricity surplus of more than 25 per cent.
On Saturday, following six days of repeated power outages, starting times were announced for the sporadic reductions in electricity supply. Power would only be cut in the period 10 minutes before and after the hour. Citizens were warned not to use elevators during this 20-minute period because the power cuts “may continue for up to an hour”. Hamza also said that, wherever possible, power cuts would not be repeated in the same area on the same day.
Mona Ramadan, who lives in Cairo’s Shubra district, told Al-Ahram Weekly that despite the reassurances, on Sunday electricity to her home was cut on four separate occasions, each lasting around an hour.
“While we are striving to implement a policy of electricity load reduction fairly, we have yet to achieve it with complete success,” conceded Minister of Electricity Mohamed Shaker.
Shaker said increased consumption caused by higher temperatures “has impacted the fuel available for electricity generation”. His comments were echoed by Hamza who said that “the quantity of natural gas provided by the Ministry of Petroleum serves as the basis for our operations.”
Egypt achieved self-sufficiency in natural gas in 2018, and exported around eight million tons, worth $8.4 billion, in 2022. In August 2022, in an attempt to reduce domestic consumption of natural gas by 15 per cent and redirect it towards exports to generate foreign currency, the government announced a nationwide energy consumption rationing plan. At the time the prime minister said that replacing 15 per cent of natural gas used for electricity generation with fuel oil — mazut — and diesel would bring in $450 million per month.
In the light of last year’s plan and Egypt’s current shortage of dollars, speculation has grown that natural gas is being exported, leaving domestic power plants short of fuel. Petroleum Minister Tarek Al-Molla rebuffed such claims in a recent interview.
“During summer, electricity consumption accounts for all of Egypt’s local natural gas production,” he said, adding that 2022, when natural gas was exported during summer, had been an exception.
Last year, Al-Molla continued, Egypt succeeded in substituting domestic gas with fuel oil for electricity generation because, at the time, fuel oil was cheaper than liquefied natural gas (LNG). Since then, the situation has reversed and “importing fuel oil and exporting gas has become economically unfeasible.”
So what is going on? There has been no reduction in natural gas for power generation, according to the Petroleum Ministry, yet still the public face power cuts.
Medhat Youssef, former chairperson of the Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation (EGPC), believes that there are three reasons behind the seeming paradox.
“The mutually determined supply rate between the two ministries has not fallen short, it is at 145 million m3 a day. Other reasons are causing the shortage of power,” Youssef said in a televised interview.
High temperatures have a negative impact on the efficiency of once-through electricity generation plants, the most common type in Egypt, leading to a reduction of up to 35 per cent in their effectiveness. High temperatures also have a negative impact on the turbines responsible for gas compression and its pumping to stations spread across Egypt’s 7,000 km gas pipeline network, making it technically impractical to increase the gas supply to pipelines or increase the processing capacity of turbines. And while all power stations in Egypt are equipped with alternative fuel systems, “for a smooth supply the Electricity Ministry needs to request the required quantities of alternative fuel from the Petroleum Ministry with sufficient lead time”. The power cuts we are seeing, said Youssef, suggest “alternative fuel had not been requested”.
There is also a shortfall in the planned contribution of renewables in electricity generation. In line with Egypt’s Vision 2030, 20 per cent of electricity was supposed to be generated from renewable energy sources by 2022, increasing to 42 per cent by 2035. According to Youssef, the heat dome currently hovering above the region means Egypt is missing these targets.
“A period of calmness in the Suez Gulf has resulted in a decrease in the proportion of electricity generated from wind energy,” he said.
Last week officials said the load reduction plan would continue until the heat wave breaks.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly